Home  »  library  »  poem  »  The Lions

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Lions

By Victor Hugo (1802–1885)

“Les lions dans la fosse étaient sans nourriture”

Translation of Camilla Crosland

FAMISHED the Lions were in their strong den,

And roared appeal to Nature from the men

Who caged them—Nature, that for them had care.

Kept for three days without their needful fare,

The creatures raved with hunger and with hate,

And through their roof of chains and iron grate

Looked to the blood-red sunset in the west:

Their cries the distant traveler oppressed,

Far as horizon which the blue hill veils.

Fiercely they lashed their bodies with their tails

Till the walls shook; as if their eyes’ red light

And hungry jaws had lent them added might.

By Og and his great sons was shaped the cave;

They hollowed it, in need themselves to save.

It was a deep-laid place wherein to hide,

This giant’s palace in the rock’s dark side;

Their heads had broken through the roof of stone,

So that the light in every corner shone,

And dreary dungeon had for dome blue sky.

Nebuchadnezzar, savage king, had eye

For this strong cavern, and a pavement laid

Upon the centre, that it should be made

A place where lions he could safely mew,

Though once Deucalions and khans it knew.

The beasts were four most furious all. The ground

Was carpeted with bones that lay all round;

While as they walked, and crunched with heavy tread

Men’s skeletons and brutes’, far overhead

The tapering shadows of the rocks were spread.

The first had come from Sodom’s desert plain;

When savage freedom did to him remain

He dwelt at Sin, extremest point and rude

Of silence terrible and solitude.

Oh! woe betide who fell beneath his claw,

This Lion of the sand with rough-skinned paw.

The second came from forest watered by

The stream Euphrates. When his step drew nigh,

Descending to the river, all things feared;

Hard fight to snare this growler it appeared.

The hounds of two kings were employed to catch

This Lion of the woods and be his match.

The third one dwelt on the steep mountain’s side.

Horror and gloom companioned every stride:

When towards the miry ravines they would stray,

And herds and flocks in their wild gambols play,

All fled—the shepherd, warrior, priest—in fright

If he leaped forth in all his dreadful might.

The fourth tremendous, furious creature came

From the sea-shore, and prowled with leonine fame,

Before he knew captivity’s hard throes,

Along the coast where Gur’s strong city rose.

Reeking its roofs—and in its ports were met

The masts of many nations thickly set.

There peasants brought their manna fine, and gum,

And there the prophet on his ass would come;

And folks were happy as caged birds set free.

Gur had a market-place ’twas grand to see;

There Abyssinians brought their ivories rare,

And Amorrhiens amber for their ware,

And linens dark. From Assur came fine wheat,

And from famed Ascalon the butter sweet.

The fleet of vessels stir on ocean made.

This beast in revery of evening’s shade

Was fretted by the noisy town so near,—

Too many folks lived in it, that was clear.

Gur was a lofty, formidable town:

At night three heavy barriers made it frown

And closed the entrance inaccessible;

Between each battlement rose terrible

Rhinoceros horn, or one of buffalo;

The strong, straight wall did like a hero show.

Some fifteen fathoms deep the moat might be,

And it was filled by sluices from the sea.

Instead of kenneled watch-dogs barking near,

Two monstrous dragons did for guards appear;

They had been captured ’mong the reeds of Nile,

And by magician tamed to guards servile.

One night, the gate thus kept the Lion neared:

With single bound the guarding moat he cleared;

Then with barbaric teeth the gate he smashed

And all its triple bars; and next he crashed

The dragons twain, without so much as look

At them, and bolts and hinges all he shook

Into one wreck. And when he made his way

Back towards the strand, remained there of the fray

Only a vision of the peopled town,

Only a memory of the wall knocked down,

’Neath spectral towers fit but for vulture’s nest,

Or for the tiger wanting timely rest.

This Lion scorned complaint, but crouching lay

And yawned, so heavily time passed away.

Mastered by man, sharp hunger thus he bore,

Yet weariness of woe oppressed him sore.

But to and fro the others stamp all three;

And if a fluttering bird outside they see,

They gnaw its shadow as they mark it soar,

Their hunger growing as they hoarsely roar.

In a dark corner of the cavern dim

Quite suddenly there oped a portal grim;

And pushed by brawny arms that fright betrayed,

Appeared a Man in grave-clothes white arrayed.

The grating closed as closing up a tomb;

The Man was with the Lions in the gloom.

The monsters foamed, and rushed their prey to gain,

With frightful yell, while bristled every mane;

Their howling roar expressing keenest hate

Of savage nature rebel to its fate,

With anger dashed by fear. Then spoke the Man,

And stretching forth his hand his words thus ran:

“May peace be with you, Lions.” Paused the beasts.

The wolves that disinter the dead for feasts,

The flat-skulled bears and writhing jackals, they

Who prowl at shipwrecks on the rocks for prey,

Are fierce; hyenas are unpitying found,

And watchful tiger felling at one bound.

But the strong lion in his stately force

Will sometimes lift the paw, yet stay its course.

He the lone dreamer in the shadows gray.

And now the Lions grouped themselves; and they

Amid the ruins looked like elders set

On grave discussion, in a conclave met,

With knitted brows intent disputes to end,

While over them a dead tree’s branches bend.

First spoke the Lion of the sandy plain,

And said:—“When this man entered, I again

Beheld the midday sun, and felt the blast

Of the hot simoom blown o’er spaces vast.

Oh, this man from the desert comes, I see!”

Then spoke the Lion of the woods:—“For me,

One time where fig and palm and cedars grow,

And holly, day and night came music’s flow

To fill my joyous cave; even when still

All life, the foliage round me seemed to thrill

With song. When this man spoke, a sound was made

Like that from birds’-nests in the mossy shade.

This man has journeyed from my forest home!”

And now the one which had the nearest come,

The Lion black from mountains huge, exclaimed:—

“This man is like to Caucasus, far famed,

Where no rock stirs; the majesty has he

Of Atlas. When his arm he raised all free,

I thought that Lebanon had made a bound

And thrown its shadow vast on fields around.

This man comes to us from the mountain’s side!”

The Lion dweller near the ocean wide,

Whose roar was loud as roar of frothing sea,

Spoke last:—“My sons, my habit is,” said he,

“In sight of grandeur wholly to ignore

All enmity; and this is why the shore

Became my home: I watched the sun arise,

And moon, and the grave smile of dawn; mine eyes

Grew used to the sublime; while waves rolled by

I learned great lessons of eternity.

Now, how this man is named I do not know,

But in his eyes I see the heavens glow;

This man, with brow so calm, by God is sent.”

When night had darkened the blue firmament,

The keeper wished to see inside the gate,

And pressed his pale face ’gainst the fastened grate.

In the dim depth stood Daniel, calm of mien,

With eyes uplifted to the stars serene,

While this the sight for wondering gaze to meet,—

The Lions fawning at the Captive’s feet!